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GM Crops – the EU Vote

The EU voted on the 13th October to reject a compromise that allowed individual states to decide if they would allow the import of Genetically Modified Organisms for use in food and animal feed and the growing of GM Crops.

I’m basically in favour of the EU, but as far as agriculture, home-growing and the environment I think this has been something of a disaster. The road to hell, paved with good intentions.

The reason they decided this way was to keep a level playing field across the internal market and ensure free trade is maintained but what it means in practice is a victory for multi-national agri-business corporations.

Risk & Reward from GM Crops

I believe genetic modification is a fantastic technology with tremendous potential to do good but that is balanced by a high level of risk. I know a lot of scientists disagree with me on this but their track record on risk isn’t good. I’ll illustrate this with two examples.

Nuclear power was going to provide safe, clean energy so cheap it wouldn’t be worth metering. Instead it turned out to produce some of the most long-lasting and toxic waste possible. When a nuclear power station reaches the end of its life, it costs a fortune to decommission it and handle the toxic waste. This makes it a dirty technology that is one of the most expensive ways to generate electricity. As for safety, Chernobyl.

Complex pesticides, often similar to nerve gas, were the safe answer to pests. Now we know that DDT ended up in everything from Mother’s milk to birds’ eggs, even in the fat of polar bears and only prompt action to ban it saved us from an environmental disaster.

Why GM Technology is Different to Breeding

GM technology is a quantum leap from conventional breeding. Instead of combining genes by conventional breeding to produce a desired result, you can save years of effort by taking the gene that gives the result you want and inserting it into a non-resistant variety.

Nature limits breeding to a species but this technology can go and has gone further. Genes from spiders inserted into goats to produce a milk containing spider silk is one example. I can’t help but feel this is fundamentally wrong but that’s an emotional reaction.

Taking a gene for blight resistance from one variety of potato and inserting it into another to create a new blight resistant variety seems like a good idea but much of GM technology is used to create crops that are herbicide resistant. The idea is that the crop can be sprayed with a weedkiller which won’t affect the crop but will kill the weeds.

If that gene then gets into a weed we’re possibly in for big problems. Conventional weeds like Japanese Knotweed are a mammoth problem already. I understand gene transfers can happen accidentally via bacteria.

The need to feed a growing global population means we should at least consider using GM technology but under tight control to ensure, as far as we’re able, the safety and to balance potential harm if the unexpected happened. Few people expected Chernobyl, remember – or DDT

What I’m really against is the power and control that this technology grants to corporations. It’s not being used so much to feed the world as to feed the pockets of multi-nationals. Once they dominate a market, control the seed, they become far too powerful. They literally hold our lives in their hands if they’re allowed to.

As for trusting companies with safety, well respected Volkswagen have shown how companies place profit before our health and safety by manipulating emission test results. Do you think companies like Monsanto or DOW are any better? If their research discovered a product they’d spent millions upon millions on was harmful do you think they would publish this?

Posted in Rants and Raves
5 comments on “GM Crops – the EU Vote
  1. Allan says:

    Interesting argument John …being a farmer I deff see the benefits ….and as a bee keeper I can see the pit falls .

    The potato blight issue would save millions in herbicides ….. but where else it goes …… glad I don’t have to make the decisions as either way people will be not happy ….who’d be a politician

    Oh and VW ….. still is a good car ….isn’t it ???

    • John Harrison says:

      @Allan: The problem is if things go wrong – the costs could be far higher than the benefits but getting independent overview is difficult.

      VW are great cars to drive but how good are they for us all if they pump out more NOX than they should? Doesn’t bother me in the country fresh air but those in cities especially London probably feel differently about it.

  2. Adam says:

    Hi
    As both a keen allotmenter and a scientist currently working in plant molecular biology (yes including GMO’s) I can say that it is so upsetting that the press make out GM to be the devil. All we want is to make things better, admittedly its annoying that the companies just want to make as much money as possible from their GM (Roundup Ready anyone?)

    I think letting the public know and understand the process and what’s involved instead of a over creative editor or a paper with an agenda. Yes it can be quite boring and long winded to explain but if you’re not informed correctly how can you be objective. There are some amazing technologies coming on from GM like markerless selection and multisite cloning. These two could revolutionise GM but the papers do not pick up on them as they aren’t headline makers.

    Take Golden Rice for example, it was developed to help (mainly Africa) with a beta-carotene producing gene (Similar to carrot) the precursor to Vit A. Which many people are deficient of in Africa. It also is quite good in drought conditions. Greenpeace and others have opposed it (successfully, its still not out) stating that it would open the door to wholesale GMO release.

    I think in the long run (next 100 years) GM will start to become more mainstream, if nothing else than the food crisis. But it needs to be for gene targets that are ethically correct, not herbicide or pesticide related. Most pests can be controlled but other methods (nematodes for slugs/snails)

    As a allomenter I would welcome some GM crops, especially blight resistant potatoes.

    • John Harrison says:

      @Adam: Hi Adam – I hope I don’t have an axe to grind or hidden agenda. Simply put, I’m worried about risks with GM that are not apparent yet and about the way large multinationals utilise the technology to control agriculture and promote a non-sustainable agri-business.

  3. G Birdsall says:

    I personally think that science messing around with our food stuffs is a nightmare just waiting to happen. I love a game Mah-jong or Patience. The trick is to get to the end in the right way, one wrong move and you may not have the move you need to complete the game. How can these scientists know for sure that they will not make that wrong move, that will cause us to lose the beautiful balance that we already have?

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